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Elevator 29: Andre 3000

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Andre Benjamin aka Andre 3000 is hard to ignore. It’s very likely you’ve already heard this rap master as part of the hip hop duo Outkast, but is there more behind the flair and panache of Southern rap’s most convivial voice?

After the perfect drum fill 24 seconds into Outkast’s debut single ‘Player’s Ball’ Andre was unleashed on the world and he’s been charming listeners ever since. Break down the lyrics to that song and you’re confronted with a slang fest describing Christmas in the ghettos of Atlanta, Georgia. From the start Outkast and their crew the Dungeon Family broke the mold.

When they wrote their first album Andre and Big Boi were teenagers. ‘Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’ is a coming of age album, awkward and weed-fueled, full of cars, contradicting desires and sharp-witted straight-talk. The lush live musical backdrop perfectly complimented Andre’s Southern drawl. The content was insightful yet immature.

Outkast’s follow up album ‘ATLiens’ really made people sit up and take notice. It’s one of the most brilliant follow-up albums in hip-hop history. Andre was on fire. Every verse he recorded had a witty punch line or pithy proverb or both. His rhyme schemes were graceful and acrobatic.

The wide spectrum of colours that ‘ATLiens’, ‘Aquemini’ and ‘Stankonia’ conjure up is arguably unique. Ranging from Day-Glo yellow to deep umber every listen becomes this disheveling journey to a dusty street corner to the planet Venus to a crude chat-up line in a nightclub to a warzone to a family BBQ to that leaky house in the ‘Ms. Jackson’ music video and back again. As the NME’s Derek Bardowell points out Outkast “hit that rare balance of creative eccentricity and mass appeal”.

Andre’s verse starts around 1.40:

Andre has been involved in writing songs with obvious mass appeal. In iTunes’ first year in existence, Outkast’s single ‘Hey Ya’ was the most downloaded song. ‘Roses’ is another poppy ear-worm – once it’s in your head it’s difficult to shake. But who could have predicted how much acclaim Outkast would receive for  ‘B.O.B.’, their turn-of-the-century anthem: a charging rhino of bass and zeitgeist bad news?

Andre’s career is built on contrast: reality and mysticism, cheery 3 minute pop songs and lengthy rap tirades, vulgarity and vulnerability, silk scarves and combat boots, exhibitionism and shyness, social commentary and syrupy sweet ballads, apparent misogyny and philogyny, youthfulness and memento mori. There’s a whole essay to be written about Andre’s impact on perceptions of African-American beauty, sexuality and sensuality, but not here.

This autobiographical track traces his on-going transformation:

Andre is a showman, a sweet talker, a whimsical lyricist with a conscience, a romantic, a storyteller, a street philosopher, a gentlemen rebel and an ice-cold realist. It’s this irresistible combination that has made his work stand out. For many people Andre is a flamboyant Prince-esque pop singer. But for many 20 and 30-somethings worldwide regardless of their background there’s solace and inspiration in the rap verses of the man with the convivial voice.

Recently Andre’s been involved in other art-forms: acting and fashion designing and he’s in no hurry to record a solo record. It would be difficult to predict what he’ll do next. You can see him play Jimi Hendrix in a new biopic.

In a 2012 Vibe interview he said: “I write lyrics every day…sometimes they turn into raps, they turn into melodic songs, or they just turn into song titles. But I haven’t said ‘Okay, I’m putting this album out right now.’ I’m not at that place. I just have to find something that I’m super excited about and right now I’m just chasing that feeling, man.” 

He does regularly guests on others rap songs, so I’m sure soon someone will ask me with wide-eyed anticipation: ‘Hey, did you hear that new Andre verse?!?

Here’s a solid interview with Andre from 2005.

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Elevator 25: Lecrae

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Since the dawn of hip-hop, rappers have drawn in fans and listeners for different reasons. For many it’s the transgressive, expletive-heavy flying-off-the-handle spirit that speaks to them profoundly, providing an way to express their anger, trauma, exuberance or fears. For others it’s a progressive black empowerment message that catches their ear fostering a sense of belonging, self-worth and steely resolve. The impressive and sometimes obsessive skill of the freestyler has been responsible for breeding many a wanna-be wordsmith. But it’s the attractiveness of the unforced ‘this is my life’ lyrics of the natural, expressive rapper that create a bond with a listener that often lasts the longest.

Lecrae, hailing from Houston, Texas, has won many fans with his various heart-felt ‘this is the life of an ordinary black man’ testimonial songs since his debut album in 2004. What makes him different to many of his peers is that Lecrae ultimately is a Christian youth worker/pastor/preacher who’s also a ferocious  rapper. He has the vulnerability to talk about his weaknesses and failures but also the audacity to challenge people with the claims of Jesus.

What happens when a pastor/rapper with an emphasis on mentoring youths on the responsibilities of fatherhood suddenly has the chance to talk to tens of thousands of young men and women?

What happens when a rapper who’s an outspoken Christian gains so much mainstream attention that other rappers are wary of releasing their album on the same day as his new release because the record chart stats will make them look bad?

Well, we’re only just finding out. Lecrae’s Grammy-winning album ‘Gravity’ and his free ‘Church Clothes Mixtape’ both released to much acclaim in 2012 were the tipping point in Lecrae’s career.

At times he treads on some of the same lyrical ground as his contemporaries:

He encourages black women to see their beauty, power and purpose:

He abhors America’s culture of violence:

but then he goes lyrically off-piste – his secular friends wouldn’t be caught dead on a track like this:

Lecrae’s lyrics represents a challenge to what it means to be a strong black man. Not only is rapping about  submission and humility before a Christian God essentially uncool, it will be understood by some as submission to white ideals, and speaking the words of the oppressor. Yet his worldview flies in the face of the American Dream.

Lecrae is in an unenviable position right now. His music and his lyrics are scrutinized, his every decision questioned, his newfound celebrity status condemned by those who believe he’s lost his faith and is selling out. He’s going to have to live out his countercultural values in the glare of the spotlight.

Yet it looks like Lecrae is embracing the challenge with a weird mix of sharp-tongued wit, down-to-earthness and missionary zeal.

In a 2013 interview, Lecrae was asked whether his younger self would be disappointed in the new Lecrae.

His answer: For sure, he would. “Aw man, you’re selling out. You’ve fallen off, man.” I’m sure that would be the way my old self would think about it. I would just sit my young self down and have a calm conversation articulating the reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing, and try to point out some of the self-righteous areas in my young self’s life. Hopefully it would be a good conversation.

You can download ‘Church Clothes Mixtape’ and ‘Church Clothes 2’ for free.